Music therapy is an emerging field that integrates music into physical therapy and rehabilitative programs. In cases where patients find difficulty expressing themselves through words (such as autistic children) music therapy can provide an invaluable means by which to connect with the world around them. Although music therapy does not aid physiological healing with the same vigor as medications and rest, it does increase quality of life for patients by lowering psychological stressors and alleviating their secondary symptoms. This sort of stress relief is especially important for terminally ill or critically injured patients because these individuals are often grappling with serious grief and depression. Music therapists work directly with patients to design music sessions that are utilized during physical therapy or other rehabilitation programs.
There have been some opponents who claim that music does not improve healing, but studies have confirmed that music therapy can reduce nausea and vomiting during cancer treatment. Drugs used during chemotherapy often induce nausea to the point where the patient’s body is weakened by nutritional deficiencies. Combined with the cellular damage from radiation therapy, chemotherapeutic treatments leave patients weak and open to secondary infection. Music therapy, along with medical marijuana to induce appetite, helps to keep patients nourished and as a consequence lowers their risk for secondary infection. Studies have also confirmed that music therapy raises the amount of immunoglobulin A (IgA) in the bloodstream, which is an antibody that strengthens the human immune system.
Music therapy also reduces levels of anxiety-producing stress hormones like cortisol. Certain kinds of music (generally softer, melodic, and instrumental varieties) actually produce chemical changes in the physical architecture of the brain. While listening to music, patients’ brains release dopamine, a chemical that produces feelings of pleasure. For children with autism, music therapy serves as positive reinforcement for socially appropriate behavior. Autistic children respond to musical cues that help reinforce the bond between certain actions and the social consequences for those actions.
Due to its effectiveness at lowering levels of stress hormones, music therapy is heavily utilized in treating phobias and other anxiety-related disorders. By centering a patient’s conversation on the creation of improvisational lyrics to a song, music therapists can gain insight into the stimuli that are producing the patient’s symptoms. Some studies have even favored music over anxiety-reducing drugs. Music therapy is less expensive and produces fewer harmful side effects than many pharmaceutical drugs, so we are likely to see continued growth in the field over the coming years as the US attempts to grapple with rising healthcare costs.